100 years of South African rugby: Part one

(IRB.COM) Thursday 9 November 2006

It was one George Ogilvie, actually Reverend G. Ogilvie - born in 1826 in Wiltshire, England - who is credited with the feat of introducing football to South Africa, following his appointment as Headmaster of the Diocesan College at Rondenbosch, near Cape Town in 1861.

However, the game taught and played by the good Reverend – affectionately called “Gog” by his pupils - was the Winchester football variety, a game the good Reverend had learned at his former ‘alma mater’, the well-known Hampshire school. Soon, the young gentlemen of Cape Town joined in and the local press reported a series of football matches between scratch sides conveniently named ‘Town v Suburbs’, or ‘Home v Colonial-born’ etc.

In around 1875 Rugby football began to be played in the Cape colony, though the first club Hamilton RFC formed that year were playing the Winchester game. The following year two further clubs - the Western Province and Villagers - were formed. The former adopted the Rugby rules, while the latter opted for the Winchester code. Indeed it was Winchester Football that the two leading clubs Hamilton and Villager started playing against each other in 1876, and the history of football in South Africa might have been very different, but for the arrival in Cape Town in 1878 of William Henry Milton, the former England back.

By the late 1870s, rugby football was very much battling to survive against Winchester Football and the Western Province club had ceased to exist due to lack of support, but the arrival in Cape Town of William H. Milton in 1878 turned the tide in favour of rugby. Milton, who had played for England only a few years earlier (in 1874 and 1875), joined the Villagers club and started playing and preaching the rugby code. By the end of that year the football playing fraternity in Cape Town had all but abandoned the Winchester game in favour of the Rugby football variety. Ten years later, Milton (later Sir William, the administrator of Southern Rhodesia) represented South Africa at cricket, though by the time the first British tour arrived in 1891, he had given up playing rugby.

In 1883 the most significant development was the formation of the Stellenbosch club in the farming district outside Cape Town - as the rugby got enthusiastically adopted by the young Boers. Soon the Western Province Rugby Football Union was formed and rugby never looked back as it spread like wildfire throughout the country capturing the imagination and the interest of the local youth.

In 1886 the Griqualand West Rugby Union was formed in Kimberley and soon the game reached Pochefstrom, Klerksdrop, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Pretoria started playing Johannesburg in 1888 and in 1889 the Transvaal Rugby Football Union was formed. The first inter-town match between Kimberley and Cape Town was played in 1884 and the following year the first tournament including teams from Cape Town, Kimberley and Port Elisabeth was held in Grahamstown.

The birth of the South African RFU

In 1889 the South African Rugby Football Board was formed and the first nationwide tournament was held at Kimberley, with the Western Province prevailing over the Griqualand West, Eastern Province and Transvaal. In 1890 a proposal to invite England's Rugby Football Union to send a team to tour the colony was enthusiastically adopted and a year later, thanks to the generosity of Sir Cecil Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, the first British tourists arrived in Cape Town.

It was a strong team, containing mainly Scottish and English players and captained by the legendary Scotland wing three-quarters W.E Maclagan. Managed by England’s Edwin Ash, the 22-strong touring party had a hard core of eight internationals, (four Scots and four English) though two of the tourists, A. Rotherham, and H. Marshall made their international debuts for England soon after the tour was over.

Maclagan’s men won all 19 matches, though South Africa battled resolutely in the three tests, won by the visitors by very narrow margins. Maclagan presented the gold cup received from Sir Donald Currie, the founder of the Castle Line Shipping Line, to the Kimberley team, in the opinion of the visitors the strongest of the 16 provincial teams they had encountered. Soon afterwards the local Union, Griqualand West, presented the cup to the South African Rugby Board to become the trophy for the inter-provincial tournament held yearly, or every two years. The Currie Cup, became the symbol of supremacy in rugby football in South Africa and its popularity has increased every year since.
Lessons learned bring rapid rise

Thanks to the lessons learned from the 1891 tourists, the standard of the game in the country improved dramatically. By the time the second tour arrived in 1896, the South Africans were ready to show their mettle. The tour party, captained by John Hammond of Blackheath who had vice-captained the 1891 tour, contained 10 full Irish and English internationals and at least another half dozen who won their caps immediately afterwards. There were no Scottish and Welsh players though.

The first South African side to avoid defeat at the hands of the visitors were Western Province, who managed to hold them to a scoreless draw in the third match of the tour and then the South Africa team, in the 21st and last match of the tour, beat the visitors 5-0. This was the first ever defeat suffered by a British team at the hands of South Africa. The date, 5 September 1896, has gone down in the history of South African rugby as their first ever win in an international.

The Boer war brought all international rugby exchanges to a halt, but as soon as it ended, rugby was back. Soon after the guns had fallen silent, the third British tour, captained by Scotland’s Mark C Morrison, arrived in 1903. For the first time all four Home Unions were represented on the tour party - though Wales had only one player, Newport’s uncapped RT Skirmishire who went up to greatly impress and was the tour’s top scorer, playing all 22 matches. The tour was managed by John Hammond, at his third South African visit.

The huge improvement in the South African play was obvious as the hosts won the test series for the first time, winning the first one and drawing the second and third tests. The visitors who had only lost one match in the previous 40-odd encounters of the 1891 and 1896 two tours, were found wanting as their tour record read: played 22, won 11, lost eight and drew three. South Africa had arrived as a significant playing nation. Naturally, the South African players started dreaming of taking on the Home Unions, and the sensational 1905 All Black tour in Britain did nothing but fire up their imagination.

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